Diamond-in-the-rough 'cue joint Art & Wardy's Box Lunch delights downtown diners

If we're gonna be highlighting places way out west, such as Bond's, propriety dictates that we afford some sort of equal time to up-and-coming downtown St. Louis as a counterpoint. And it just so happens that we recently rediscovered one of downtown's diamonds-in-the-rough, a little 'cue joint called Art & Wardy's Box Lunch.

We first encountered Art & Wardy's -- run by a couple of pals whose relationship dates back to Soldan High, class of '74 -- in a cubbyhole space in the Arcade Building, before that gorgeous structure was allowed to rot by a series of civic and governmental St. Louis "leaders" more focused on '60s-style Fortune 500 corporate growth rather than the true key to good fortune downtown, the growth of entrepreneurial businesses. Even with that tarnish on the memory, however, we do remember that this was some marvelous 'cue, firm but tender meat with lots of smoke flavor and a mildly spicy sauce.

Nowadays Art & Wardy's can be found in a bare-bones-decor space on 11th Street just north of Washington Avenue, eight tables with vinyl tablecloths and aging silk flowers, a big-screen TV bringing in its fuzzy signal with old-fashioned rabbit ears, and a photo of Fred "Rerun" Berry among the sparse wall art. But everyone knows that the only important atmosphere in a barbecue pit is the smell of the smoke, and it entices you off the street as you walk by Art & Wardy's.

A whole rib slab costs $14.99 (half for $7.99), and a smoked-beef box lunch is $5.99. The ribs are our fave, and they'll even cut the ribs one by one for you, so as to make it easier not to stain your desk or keyboard if you carry your meal back to the office. Art & Wardy's stays open till 6 on weeknights, so they're also a great choice for grabbing some incomparable smokin' to take home with you.

We've got our fingers crossed, hoping that the combination of imminent work on the convention hotel and the big plans for the Loft District farther west on Washington will lead to some nice rewards for Art & Wardy's long years of hard work rather than merely bouncing them around downtown into another hard- to-find space. Meanwhile, drop in sometime to their current location and turn yourself on to barbecue like it oughta be.

ART & WARDY'S BOX LUNCH, 612 N. 11th St., 436-9065.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.